Portraits and Time


Nicholas Nixon, creator of the Brown sisters’ photo series, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Four decades ago, photographer Nicholas Nixon began what would become a series of stunning black-and-white portraits of four sisters: Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie Brown. While visiting his wife’s family, Nixon offered to photograph the Brown sisters. The project crystallized a year later when he was again with the women, at one’s graduation. Every year since 1975, he has photographed them, casual and unposed, and the gallery of images has become world-famous. The images dramatically reflect continuity and change in the adult human person as she grows, and ages. They are especially evocative when viewed gradually in sequence.

Each photo of the Brown sisters shows them in the same order. The collection is longitudinal study open to interpretation—is it about aging, vanishing youth, woman’s self-image, beauty, the gaze, or perhaps the unique essence of sisterhood? (You tell me.) A study that takes place over time, rather than being conducted all at once, is known as a longitudinal study, an approach common in sociology. It is helpful for getting at aspects of life that cannot be captured quantitatively.

The idea of documenting life over time through photography or other media is nothing new. One famous longitudinal study is the Up series, which began in 1964 as a documentary about British children and social class titled Seven Up! The filmmakers selected a group of 14 children from different socioeconomic backgrounds and explored their varied educational experiences. They checked in with their participants at seven-year intervals, each time producing another documentary film: 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up . . . through 56 Up, released in 2012. A major difficulty with doing a longitudinal study is just keeping up with the participants as life happens. What makes the Brown sisters’ portrait study so remarkable is that it was able to be done at all. It helped that one of the sisters, Bebe—always third from the left—is Nixon’s wife.

Image credit: © Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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